A week in Tuscany

Today we began our week of activities hosted by the Department of Agronomy and Land Management at the University of Florence. Thanks to my colleague, Professor Marco Bindi, and his staff (Sandra and Giacomo) for organising this week for us.

Our first stop was the University research farm, a 300ha property in the famous Chianti region of Tuscany. It’s a very beautiful place. The manager of the farm talked about some of their research activities, for example work they are doing on erosion control and water conservation through land contouring, and showed us around their facilities. I asked him about changes in climate that they are experiencing. His response was that nothing is reliable with the weather any more. Annual rainfall here is around 400mm. Historically most of this came in the winter months. Now the distribution is unpredictable. Temperatures are increasing, and rapid temperature changes are being experienced at times. Crops are being affected. For example when they pruned the grapes in the dormant winter period last winter they found that there was still sap flowing at a time when there would normally be no such activity in the plant. It is becoming very hard to manage farm activities with such changes.

A typical scene from Chianti, Tuscany
A typical scene from Chianti, Tuscany
Gavin with Giacomo and the manager of the University research farm who talked about the challenges of more chaotic weather that they are already experiencing
Gavin with Giacomo and the manager of the University research farm who talked about the challenges of more chaotic weather that they are already experiencing

After lunch in the nearby village we drove to a farm called Poggio di Camporbiano where we met Piero Alberti, a biodynamic farmer. Piero has been farming this 200ha property biodynamically since 1986.

With Piero Alberti, one of the smartest farmers I've met. “We can no longer rely on the proverbs of the past”
With Piero Alberti, one of the smartest farmers I've met. “We can no longer rely on the proverbs of the past”

The farm is organised as a cooperative community with about 14 people living and working there. Piero was the first one to be on the farm and is responsible for most of the farming activities. He is a very very smart farmer, one of the smartest I have met in all of our travels and even compared to some very good New Zealand farmers that I have worked with. The focus is to farm this property as a living organism, with a focus on sound ecology, a strong social environment and a very robust farm economy. To achieve this there are a diversity of production activities, processing of farm products for sale, biodynamic production techniques, recycling of farm waste back into the farm, extremely smart management of a very limited water situation, and implementation of a self-sufficient energy programme. The importance and value of this ecologically balanced approach is reflected in the ability of the farm to sustain economic viability through a severe drought period several years ago. They managed the farm through this drought without needing the external economic support that other farmers in the area needed. In relation to climate change Piero made a very profound statement, that farmers in Italy can no longer rely on the proverbs of the past. Everything has changed and is changing very rapidly. The modern farmer, in his view, needs to both be smart in using available technology and develop a greater sensibility to nature. Their success is reflected in the fact that neighbouring farmers are beginning to follow some of their practices. Our time with Piero was quite limited, but I was so impressed by this story that I arranged a return visit for the following Sunday (3 June).

Farming for the future in Umbria

Yesterday (Saturday) we drove to Alfredo and Christine’s farm, first in mid afternoon to film and photograph scenes on and from the farm and later in the evening to film an interview with Alfredo.

Alfredo and Christine came to this valley in the mid 1970s, students from University in Rome coming to live an ideal in the countryside. They discovered this beautiful place in Umbria, 100ha of abandoned land in the hills. The hills were mostly abandoned in the 1960s, with people either moving to the cities or down into the valley to work on tobacco farms which predominate here. They chose an organic approach, consistent with traditional agriculture in this environment, but with contemporary ideas and technology. The forested hills here provide a protective cover that is very important in an environment that becomes very dry in the summer months. But there are problems. Aside from the good work of people like Alfredo and Christine, the hills and forest are no longer managed in a way that supports sustainability of the whole environment. Mostly now the old villas in the hills have been bought by foreigners or converted to tourist accommodation. The forest is neglected and use of water for swimming pools is increasing the pressure on water resources. This is on top of the heavy use for water for tobacco growing in the valley. People are having to drill deeper to get water. The winter snows of 30 years ago are no longer happening, an important source of groundwater recharge. Alfredo talks to the old people and they say that the agriculture in the valley has been destroyed. Local people hear through the news about climate change, they are experiencing local climatic changes, they wonder if there is a connection. They lack relevant information to help make the connections.

The potential here is in the forest, the environment, the mix of people … the likes of Katharina with her networking, Alfredo and Christine with their organic farming, the long-standing farmers and others in the community being supported and empowered to work together for the future. Alfredo’s view is that there is a need to refocus back to producing local food for local people. They are leading through their example.

“This valley has the possibility to make very good food, agricultural food, for local people.”

A traditional storage dam, on Alfredo and Christine's farm.  The majority of these traditional dams have been abandoned and replaced by swimming pools
A traditional storage dam, on Alfredo and Christine's farm. The majority of these traditional dams have been abandoned and replaced by swimming pools
Alfredo cutting hay. In the past the grass would have been three times this height at this time of year. Hotter weather and less moisture are possible causes for the lower production in Alfredo's view
Alfredo cutting hay. In the past the grass would have been three times this height at this time of year. Hotter weather and less moisture are possible causes for the lower production in Alfredo's view
A view of the farm homestead, with olive grove. Alfredo and Christine have put their ideals into practice and created a balanced farm forestry environment
A view of the farm homestead, with olive grove. Alfredo and Christine have put their ideals into practice and created a balanced farm forestry environment

Being in this beautiful valley in Umbria, visiting Assisi, has been very uplifting and a further affirmation of what motivated me towards undertaking this journey with my family. We continue to meet people doing good things … now stretching from Thailand, Viet Nam, Nepal, Egypt, to Italy. It is my goal to work to strengthen the connections that have been made, to create the possibility of bringing some of these grassroots people from different places together. I can do this through a documentary film if I ultimately find the extra support needed to realise this. But I also now carry a goal to physically bring grassroots people from different places together … to facilitate an interaction that I think could be very powerful and really help guide a true action focused approach to addressing the real issues of our time in a realistic manner.

Connections and impressions from Assisi

For the last week we have been enjoying the beauty of Umbria. At the same time my hope of connecting with some people in the valley we are staying in was realized.

There are fields with scattered poppies everywhere here, very beautiful
There are fields with scattered poppies everywhere here, very beautiful

The first few days here we were finding our feet, me still getting used to driving on the right side of the road, finding local supermarkets and so on. In between I managed to make some good connections. With the help of a young Italian couple staying in the apartment next to ours I managed to talk to Guiseppe, the co-owner of La Casella Marilena where we are staying, about my interests. He then connected me with a local woman, Katharina. Through Katharina we met Alfredo and Christine, a couple who own a 100 ha organic farm and a restaurant in the hills here. Last night we had dinner at their lovely restaurant and talked about our journey and my work. They were very interested. It emerged that they are part of a group of people who moved to this valley in the 1970s and have been working over a long period of time on environmental issues. Their networking activities are on-going. The challenge they have had is being seen as outsiders by the long-standing local farmers and community. However, over time, they have worked to make connections and try and influence positive changes with the community. I see a real opportunity to help facilitate stronger connections and interactions. Now is the time for this to happen, as we’ve seen and heard in every place we’ve visited so far on this journey.

Today we went to Assisi. This was a very special day. St Francis of Assisi was a very special person at a time of much conflict, with a universal message that is very relevant now. It is worth repeating part of the text from the brochure we collected from the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi…

“Franciscan existence is an immense space where God, man and the world of nature harmoniously find their place. In Assisi even the sun, moon, stars, fire, water and wind feel at home because Francis dared to call them ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’.”

Reading this reminded me of a movie I saw about 32 years ago, about the life of St Francis “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”. This movie made a very big impression on a then 16 year old. What moved me most in the Basilica was the Giotti painting of “The Sermon to the Birds”. We walked from the Basilica to the highest point in Assisi for a beautiful view over the village and surrounding countryside. As we left Assisi I was captured by images of field and sky, with Assisi and the Basilica in between. And then a sign to the Sanctuary of Rivotorto caught my eye. This is named the ‘hovel of St Francis’ where the first Franciscan community was briefly housed … the humble, simple dwelling now overwhelmed by the church of Rivotorto.

The village of Assisi, between earth and sky
The village of Assisi, between earth and sky

On our return to the commune of Lisciano Niccone we drove into a thunderstorm and then beautiful scenes of sun radiating through clouds over the nearby village of Mercatale.

A stunning scene from our temporary home at Marilena la Casella, looking towards Mercatale
A stunning scene from our temporary home at Marilena la Casella, looking towards Mercatale

Lisciano Niccone, Umbria

Yesterday (21 May) we came to a tiny place called Casa Vacanze Marilena la Cassella, in Lisciano Niccone Commune, Perugia Province, Umbria. Firstly we had to collect our lease car from near Rome airport, and I had to quickly adjust to driving a left hand drive car on the right side of the road on a fast moving motorway. After more than three months of flying, being on trains, being driven to places, this was quite a challenge. But I did well and here we are in Umbria!

After all the challenges since we left home on 8 February this is an incredibly welcome, and stunningly beautiful, haven. Last night, with the help of some other guests here, I talked to Guiseppe who owns this place with his wife Marilena. I talked briefly about our journey and my work. There is something very special about the environment here … tree clad hills, small villages, grapes and olive trees in pockets on the slopes, cultivated land on the flats. I am sure that it is not all perfect, but there is a powerful sense of harmony with nature here.

The beautiful harmonious landscape of Lisciano Niccone in Umbria, a beautiful haven after three and a half months of travel
The beautiful harmonious landscape of Lisciano Niccone in Umbria, a beautiful haven after three and a half months of travel

Reflections from Rome

Just over a week ago, on 14 May, we arrived in Milan and next day Emma decided to join us, after three months at Origlio Steiner School near Lugano. It was wonderful to have her with us again. We are very grateful for Paolo and Iva who very kindly hosted us for four nights in Milan

On 18 May we all flew down to Rome, where we spent three nights and two days. For me this was another part of a personal journey that began in Egypt. My grandfather was in Egypt in WW1, and my father served in both Egypt and Italy in the latter part of WW2. Visiting the Colosseum and then the Palatine (the site of the main centre of historic Rome) brought back a very clear memory of my father talking about his time here in Rome. It was a place he had wanted to bring us all, a dream that he never realised in his life. This made it particularly memorable to be here with my family.

As we walked around the ruins of a civilisation that collapsed around 1500 years ago I reflected on the cycles of nature, the rise and fall of life, of civilisations. I wondered how many of the many tourists there were consciously reflecting on this in the context of the current state of our modern world. The important message is to become conscious of cyclical nature of all things, including human civilisations. Most importantly we need to be more aware of the good things that are already rising which I believe offer us true guidance for the future.

Walking through the ruins of the Palatine, Rome
Walking through the ruins of the Palatine, Rome

The desert

On Saturday, our third day, we drove out from Bahariya to spend a night camping in the desert. We stopped in the Black Desert, where I climbed a peak to view an amazing scene of extinct volcanoes. We then travelled on to a small oasis where we had lunch and a rest in the midday heat.

The Black Desert
The Black Desert
On the edge of the Black Desert. Here your understand the true power and importance of water to life
On the edge of the Black Desert. Here your understand the true power and importance of water to life

In mid afternoon we drove on to a place called Crystal Mountain and then to the White Desert, where we set up camp for the night. Stunning, silent, beautiful starlit night. Marred slightly by obvious signs of human presence; plastic bottles thoughtlessly left in the desert sand. But a great experience to sleep in the desert under the stars. It was hard next day, driving back to Bahariya and then to the noise and pollution of Cairo.

“Leave only your plastic drink bottle” - is that what we want as our 21st century footprint?
“Leave only your plastic drink bottle” - is that what we want as our 21st century footprint?

In the end our time in Egypt seemed too short. There is a lot more that we need to know about changes happening in the desert, as much as in the mountains, with our rivers, our forests. People have lived with the desert for millennia. We associate the word “oasis” as a place to rest and recovery, a place of calm amidst the storm. What happens when we deplete the water that sustains our oases, when our personal oases become barren places?

The greatest reward as our journey continues is the increased power we feel in sharing stories from other places and encouraging the people we meet to keep doing the good things they are engaged in.

Bahariya Oasis

Before coming to Egypt we had no fixed plan. My principal contact was with Sekem. Before leaving New Zealand I thought perhaps we might spend some time in different parts of the Nile River and Delta. The Nile River is the life blood of Egypt, supporting the vast majority of the population. Instead, after visiting Sekem and meeting Dr Zakaria El-Haddad, I was compelled to travel into the Western Desert.

We spent four days and three nights in the desert. With our relatively limited time we only travelled to Bahariya Oasis, the closest of the oases to Cairo … 360km and a four and a half hour drive. Sekem staff assisted by providing names of people to visit. The journey out into the desert was a totally new experience. It was certainly a powerful contrast to the mountains of Nepal; but in some way there was also a connection, in the grandeur of the landscape and power of nature that both places conveyed.

At Bahariya Oasis we first met Ahmed Shawky and Corien Elstgeest from Elysium. Corien is from the Netherlands and moved to Bahariya 10 years ago. She is there is with a mission, working together with Ahmed and her partners in the Netherlands.

With Ahmed Shawky and Corien Elstgeest at Elysium
With Ahmed Shawky and Corien Elstgeest at Elysium

“You can learn a lot in the desert, it brings you to the real life. There you can feel your own self … There you are alone with the mountains, the sand, the sun, the moon, the stars. There you can really have the silence … After a visit of, for example, one week in the desert, then your whole system is changed and you can think differently, you can look differently to the rest of you life.  And you know how important the desert is for all of us …” Ahmed Shawky and Corien Elstgeest

We were very grateful to meet these people who provided a welcome home for us in between our various activities and very kindly took us around Bahariya one afternoon. Elysium is a relatively small initiative at present, but with a clear vision, inspired by the work at Sekem. They have developed a retreat where people can come and stay and experience the quiet and power of the desert environment. On their land they are implementing biodynamic agriculture practices. They also have aims to develop an educational and training facility to help develop sustainable future pathways for people living in the desert.

A view of Elysium where Ahmed and Corien are working to realise their vision, inspired by the work at Sekem
A view of Elysium where Ahmed and Corien are working to realise their vision, inspired by the work at Sekem

Life in the desert can’t exist without water. At Bahariya Oasis we learned that there has been relatively little rain in the last 20 years, insufficient to recharge the groundwater that everyone relies on. At the same time there has been increased development and demand for water, promoted through government policies. In many places people are using pumps where they weren’t needed in the past. People are digging deeper to get their water. At the same time it appears that there is a lot of waste from the flood irrigation of date groves, with a lake now formed from the runoff. It became increasingly apparent that the delicate balance in this oasis is tipping towards a situation of future water crises. This provides a challenging situation for Ahmed and Corien in realising their vision for Bahariya.

Ten years ago water was running freely from this well as it had been for a long time before. Now this well is dry and has been replaced nearby by a much deeper well with a diesel driven pumping station
Ten years ago water was running freely from this well as it had been for a long time before. Now this well is dry and has been replaced nearby by a much deeper well with a diesel driven pumping station
A lake has formed from irrigation runoff, indicative of the amount of water that is being wasted
A lake has formed from irrigation runoff, indicative of the amount of water that is being wasted

We also met a date grower, Mr. Raafat Abd elAlim, whose family has supplied Sekem with dates for the last 16 years. As he said, the desert is their home, it is their life. But everything they have depends on water. He talked about the changes with water. For centuries the water has risen naturally from the underground aquifers. But with the expansion of agriculture this is happening less and less, with increased pumping from greater depths. The water is now being mined.

“The water, a little. The water now a little in oasis.”
“The water, a little. The water now a little in oasis.”

In our short time with Ahmed and Corien we talked about the importance of acting now for the future and working to engage the community. This was a very good exchange, adding to our stories from different places, but also an opportunity to share ideas and encourage them in their work.